Boston Struggles to Resolve Crisis at Mass. and Cass
Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced on October 19 through an executive order that homeless encampments will no longer be permitted in the city of Boston. This is primarily a response to the situation at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, also known as Mass. and Cass. This comes after months of attempting to mitigate the problem amidst worsening conditions. Residents of these encampments will be asked to move if shelter and storage for personal effects are available for them.
“The goal of trying to get people into treatment or support is really to help people stabilize their lives, and you can’t do that in a tent. You can’t do it in a tent on the street when you’re being preyed on by others,” said Boston’s chief of Health and Human Services, Marty Martinez.
Photo Courtesy: Jim Michaud/Boston Herald
Mass. and Cass has became a topic of controversy among Boston public officials, especially during the recent mayoral election. As it stands, the area contains dozens of encampments for unhoused Bostonians, which has led to a large police presence in the area. Mass. and Cass is also the site of frequent drug use, leading to it being referred to as the “Methadone Mile” by many locals. Those living in these encampments struggle with a variety of issues, ranging from difficulty maintaining housing, mental health issues, and drug addiction.
The city has been unable to prevent further spread of this problem, despite concerns about the lack of response to this issue ranging from residents and public health officials to local organizations and businesses. One of these organizations that has called on the city to act is Greater Boston Food Bank, which services many individuals at Mass. and Cass. The organization has spent thousands to ensure both the safety of their staff, who have worried about the drug use in the area, and the people they serve.
The size of the encampments have also brought up concerns about whether or not their deliveries will go through. CEO Catherine D’Amato stated that, “if you cannot get the food down the street, you cannot get it into the building, therefore you cannot get orders met to get it out to the people and the organizations we serve. We’ve had agencies try to get down the street, and their cars have been — you can’t go through a crowd of people.”
Boston Police presence in the area is pervasive and dozens of arrests and break ups of encampments have been undertaken in the last few months. Boston Police’s “Operation Cleansweep” involved multiple raids against these encampments as well as harassment of homeless individuals. One particular incident of a Boston Police officer destroying the wheelchair of an unhoused individual was also recorded as part of this operation.
There has also been talk of bolstering BPD involvement both in number and intensity. Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins has even proposed the involuntary containment of the almost 100 residents of Mass. and Cass in the South Bay Correctional facility. Tompkins reported this could be used to provide treatment and care to these residents. Despite concerns, Tompkins has affirmed that this idea is practical: “We just think it’s a smart idea to get people in a confined space when the winter is coming.” Critics have brought up concerns about this approach as many in these facilities would feel incarcerated. Additionally, ICE used this very facility had previously to detain undocumented immigrants.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins has opposed further punitive solutions to the problems at Mass. and Cass: “Substance use disorder is a public health crisis that cannot be cured through prosecution,” Rollins stated in a press release early this year. “We need all of our partners in every level of government and public health institutions and leaders across the state to join us in addressing both this public health crisis and the significant harm created by those who prey on the desperation and vulnerability of others.”
One major contributing source to this problem was former Mayor Marty Walsh’s closure of the Long Island bridge for reconstruction in 2014. Long Island was the site of addiction treatment facilities on the Boston Harbor that provided care for many that now reside at Mass. and Cass. Although Walsh promised the bridge would be open again, the nearby city of Quincy has held up reconstruction efforts due to environmental concerns. While the City Council of Quincy has supported the Long Island and Moon Island facilities, even offering ferries for patient transportation, the appointment of Mayor Walsh as President Biden’s Secretary of Labor and the recent mayoral election has all but put this project on the backburner.
The administration of Acting Mayor Kim Janey came forward with an alternate solution to relocate 30 homeless residents of Mass. and Cass to the Quality Inn Hotel in Revere as a temporary relief measure. This proposal has been opposed by Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo. The mayor affirmed his support for addiction treatment and homeless services, but does not believe Revere should bear the brunt of this issue. Arrigo stated, “we will not accept our much larger and more well-resourced neighbor deciding to shift their political and PR issue to another city and hoping it goes away."
Mass. and Cass was a hot button issue for the 2021 Mayor election. Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George has expressed support of reopening the Long Island Shelter as well as funding for increased city department involvement, including the appointment of a “Mass. and Cass czar” who would oversee the city’s response. She also floated the idea of using federal relief money to address the problem.
Mayor-elect and City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu has focused on addressing what she sees to be the root of the problem at Mass. and Cass: opiate addiction and housing inequality. Wu supports the creation of a coalition to address the opiate epidemic, which is present not just in Boston, but in all of Massachusetts. She has repeatedly stressed the urgency of this issue, emphasizing the need for immediate solutions. “We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reconstruct that Island without a specific plan…We can’t wait multiple years and keep kicking the can down the road when the situation calls for urgent relief,” Wu said in a statement to the Boston Sun. Wu also believes that increased city funding for housing and transportation would mitigate some of the underlying factors leading to homelessness. Wu also hopes to address zoning laws to make subsidized housing available in areas.
While Mass. and Cass remains a critical issue, the attention it has been getting both at the local and state level has led to more resources being put towards finding a solution. At the state level, Gov. Charlie Baker recently met with members of the Janey administration as well as Boston Police and Suffolk county District Attorney Rachel Rollins. Baker reportedly offered resources to the city to help address this crisis such as financial support and more tangible aid like medical supplies and hospital beds.
While a considerable amount of effort and resources have been put into resolving the situation at Mass. and Cass, many are growing frustrated with the city’s approach. Leo Beletsky, a Professor of Law at Northeastern University, believes that this new order is approaching the situation from the wrong angle. In an interview with Boston.com, Beletsky stated that “there’s very little public health to be found in the order. Public health generally focuses on prevention and science-based approaches, interventions that are rooted in science, measures that are rooted in science… The overall tone and the actual substance of the order is very much enforcement-focused and criminalization-focused, rather than public health.”
Beletsky claims that taking punitive approaches at Mass. and Cass will only increase the underlying circumstances that lead to drug use in the first place. He believes resources should be allocated to prevention and rehousing rather than drastic measures like dispersion.
While the situation at Mass and Cass continues to develop, the incoming Wu administration will determine the city's response going forward and seek to solve the crisis with a new approach.